Caught out by last year’s Arab Spring uprisings, the region’s media are still coming to terms with their new-found freedom from the strong-arm tactics of now toppled dictators, participants in a Dubai conference say.
“Turmoil, chaos, change… words that perfectly capture the situation in the Arab world and media over the past 18 months,” said Maryam Bin Fahd, executive director at the Dubai Press Club, speaking at the Arab Media Forum that wrapped up on Wednesday.
The conference, attended by nearly 3,000 people and organised by the Dubai Press Club, provoked heated debate among the representatives of an industry at the centre of sweeping changes in the region after decades of repression.
“The Arab media is trying to find its way after this 180-degree about turn,” said Nabil al-Khatib, editor-in-chief at Al-Arabiya news channel.
“Many journalists were used to receiving orders from information ministers in their countries on the coverage of events, and suddenly they found themselves free,” he told AFP.
Internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter and You Tube, which have played such a key role in the Arab uprisings, have changed the media landscape and are “restructuring traditional journalism,” according to participants.
Social networks that have given rise to so-called citizen journalism are a window with which to “mislead public opinion,” argued Amr Khafagi, editor-in-chief of the Egyptian Shorouk daily.
But for Nakhle El Hage, Al-Arabiya’s news director, “they can hold a treasure of information, (although) they are a land filled with mines.”
In countries where mass protests succeeded in toppling long-standing regimes, the new authorities are still finding their way, Tunisia’s Minister of Culture Al-Mahdi Mabrouk told the conference.
“You cannot expect to go from a media of propaganda to an independent media in just a few months, such a transition takes time,” Mabrouk said.
“In due course, the media will find a voice that is unbiased and fair,” he added, during a session entitled “Arab media and the shock of change.”
But in countries where protests are ongoing, notably Syria, the authorities have tightened their media policies, participants said, forcing news channels to find new ways of covering the unfolding events.
“In Syria we resorted to a network of stringers who we trained over the phone and who became apprentice reporters after we managed to send them equipment, including cameras and laptops,” said Al-Arabiya’s Nabil al-Khatib.
The Saudi-owned network, and above all Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, played a key role in the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010.
In a survey published by the conference organisers, 72 percent of those participating thought satellite news channels had contributed to the Arab Spring.
Senior staffers at those channels deny taking advantage of the uprisings, insisting that they have tried to report events on the ground as accurately as possible.
“All the Arab regimes wanted to control the media, to impose restrictions on us and even to prevent us from working, as in Syria, which forced us to take positions,” said Al-Jazeera presenter Jamil Azar.
Many at the conference also questioned whether it was possible to provide objective or impartial coverage of the tumultuous events in the region given the alternate risk of upsetting the public by not openly siding with the revolt.
There is a need to “focus on quality information and not be swayed by the demands of the street,” said Randa Habib, director of the AFP Foundation for Middle East and North Africa.
“The fact that there are a variety of means to get information does not necessarily mean quality journalism,” she added.